Wednesday, February 29, 2012

2012.02.29 Blogoir I

Once upon a time I broke into life with the help of my mother’s pain, sweat and sorrow, and before that my father’s sperm.

Mom had planned to “give” my father a boy, a son (the holy status of sonship is the Bible’s fault—well, also the patriarchal culture’s) who looked just like him and would be named Michael McDonald.

I arrived in obvious feminine form and messed up her plans. But she “adored” me anyway, sometimes too smothery much.

My birth year was 1938, a teetery year between wars but one full of hope for prosperity and a brand new line of Buicks, soon the car of choice for my family. The date was August 7, only 6 weeks before the 1938 hurricane blasted New England, especially Long Island. After the damage was fixed we spent many summers on Long Island, the Hamptons no less.

Being born on a Sunday earned me the legacy of the rhyme, “The child that is born on the Sabbath day is blithe and bonnie and good and gay.” This descriptor did not fit my developing nature—somber, serious, solo, and shy. The rhyme described my mother who tried to bequeath me her own personality, but you really can’t manipulate a “miracle” can you?

My birth place was Manhattan in Leroy Sanitorium, a hospital name that later caused me to ask about my sanity. Spelling is everything.

I have a photo of myself in utero. You can’t see much of me through my mother’s expanded belly. She looks happy with a cigarette in her hand. She’d had 3 miscarriages before I made it out whole, a joy to behold, beautiful, a miracle. I really looked like a squished pink frog covered with black hair.

Love can see through absolutely anyone and make her beautiful.

I managed to look like Dad who gave me my name Lynda Hall Gillespie. But after that it was all down hill. I was as different from Mom as a dill pickle from a jelly donut.

Up to three all adoration was mutual, but at three the pinafore wars began. My mother had a pinafore obsession and I was already an overalls kid. The only good things about pinafores was their wings.

Mom, in spite of the miracle status and the perky personality she’d conferred on me, called me a sour puss. There’s photographic proof of that, too: Mom all smiles and me all scowls. We’re dressed alike in pinafores.

Miracle status didn’t work for me. It took an act of God to naturalize me. It also took a helluva a long time.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

2012.02.26 Waiting for a Snap Day

I’ve been waiting for a day to open out, snapping cold, brilliant, sun-dried, and billowing like a freshly laundered sheet on the line—clean and pure white.

I’m waiting for a snap day. I want it spread before me.

The weather has been weirdly warm for mid-winter—distinctly New England February grey, nonetheless. Everyone smiles and says, isn’t it warm and nice. Then they hesitate, grin a little shyly. They, like me, have heard of global warming and all sorts of apocalyptic terrors and wonder.

I’m waiting for a snap day to snap the weather out of its gloomy gray and to snap me out of my energyless drear, precipitated by a rejection of my memoir manuscript. The literary agent who read it wrote an encouraging, gracious, hopeful even complimentary letter. While grieving I couldn’t quite trust that part—like the hope of resurrection in the middle of a funeral.

I looked for Godde.

My adult children brought me God in their outpouring of love, not just for poor mom but for me as a writer, woman and priest. They asked to read my book and I’m honored. Perhaps my labor is for them anyway, as it once was in their birthing. They started at the center of my body and they remain at the center of my heart, sharing it with Godde.

Then, gazing listlessly out the window immobilized, I spied a sudden flash of gray, a dash of movement. I watched five small squirrels racing and tumbling all over each other in the large tree right outside my window. Was this another batch of babies emerging out from under the garage roof next door? These grey squirts were playing. They must be kids. They were wild and amusing and lifted my spirit an inch or two.

The little squirrels were not taxed. They brought me God. I knew because my heart jumped.

Then Lo! A snap day dawned. Today. Sunday/sun day—Godde’s day, or one of them. Snap!

It takes a great leap of faith to believe in God—and an even greater leap to believe in yourself, to create, to put your faith into some work and then put it out there.

Once at a writers’ conference I attended the leader/author asked me, “Do you ever write about anything but God?” I hesitated, so sharp did his question feel, and so silenced my mind.

“Yes,” I said, then, “No. Is there anything else to write about, really, deeply?”

I had an answer then, so I know I will find one now.

And I, like my father used to say, will “snap to it.”

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

2012.02.22 Ash Wednesday

Today is the day of ashes, the day Christians begin the season of Lent

-a time to remember who we are in Christ, both human and divine
-a time to be humble—right-sized, not too grand and not too small— failed and flawed, also good and glorious
-a time to know we are very good, not very God
-a time to scrape the barnacles from our souls, hearts, minds, and bodies; to forgive and begin again the movement with Jesus toward a Jerusalem of truth and trust
-a time not to avoid the Gethsemane of agony, the sorrow and pain of sin; and a time not to linger or get stuck in that Gethsemane
-a time to grieve and a time to hope in the enormous span of divine mercy alone....swift to save, slow to anger, and abundant in steadfast love.

We want to, but it’s no good for Christians to ignore sin even though the word is out of favor and mostly misunderstood.

I remember when years ago I was asked to offer a class, optional of course, for high schoolers. The young people were interested in religion and God, but not the bad judging kind. The biggest question they had was : HOW DO YOU KNOW WHEN YOU SIN?

I told them the simplest thing I could think of: YOU FEEL IT.

This led to a lively discussion centering on conscience as a gift from God to help us move along, not towards moralism but to spiritual wholeness. An inner guide to help us connect with goodness in ourselves, God, and our neighbors whenever we forgot it.

All of them good? Yup—even those you hate, the bullies and the nerds, the popular stuck-up ones, etc. etc. High school culture can be a cruel petri dish for vulnerability and growth.

The students and I had the most fun laughing about how you could break a big fat rule and know it wasn’t sin because you didn’t feel bad about yourself—like breaking a rule for the sake of helping someone you really cared about. One young man skipped Mass to help a friend with some homework AND didn't confess. Sinner?

Or...sometimes you could feel sinful and guilty when you didn’t sin at all. One teen concluded she apologized too much for nothing. "It’s like I feel like I AM sin but I’m not!” she said. Many identified.

On Ash Wednesday we Christians smear ashes on our foreheads to remind us of our vulnerability to all kinds of sin, real or imagined. We say, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Not morbid, simply true.

Lent is a time to be aware of sin AND a time not to get mired in it.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

2012.02.19 The Feminine Mystique Turning 50

It would have been easier for me to get ordained in the Episcopal Church back in the late 70s when I started naively out on that track—an aisle that turned into a maze—if I’d been a man, not been the mother to four children, timed my calling so it didn’t collide with my wild midlife awakening, and not read Betty Friedan.

I’m not bitter about the struggle or sexist attitudes in the church, and have written about the many graces that came my way including a few amazing male bishops! Also part of the maze was my own grievous chaos that daunted my patriarchal uptight church. It daunted me, too!

Bette Friedan, a Jewish woman and a graduate of my alma mater Smith College, was not on anyone’s list of required reading for those feeling called to ordination to the priesthood. Nevertheless she found her way into my restless heart right alongside God, and the two cooperated within me to move me along against seemingly impossible odds.

Friedan’s “Feminine Mystique" published in 1963 when my first child a daughter was born, begins: "The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the 20th century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night — she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question — 'Is this all?'"

That question would end up sparking a second wave of feminism in the United States, would permanently transform the American social fabric, and the book would come to be seen as a pioneering moment in American history and one of the most influential nonfiction books of the 20th century.

Betty’s silent question hit me with arrow depth. So did the silent question God-in-me asked one day in the midst of whatever number batch of chocolate chip cookies I was making in my own suburban kitchen: Why are you doing this?

The two questions precipitated a quest toward a vocation I’d longed for and lingered around since childhood. It took me a record 11 years (usually 4), two bishops (usually 1,) and the kind of “patience” the biblical Job gets credit for but never had to get ordained.

I have no regrets. Adversity strengthened my resolve and my vocation. And I continue to squawk, occasionally too loudly,about gender justice and call myself a Christian feminist. (My dear 1963-born daughter gets lovingly impatient with me.)

However I do wonder if today women feel Friedan’s vague “sense of dissatisfaction” as they continue to struggle to balance careers and child-rearing in a still patriarchally ordered church and society. Or are too many of us too affluent, or maybe too guilty, in this country to feel the “strange stirring” toward empowerment and equivalence?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

2012.02.15 A Twitch Upon the Thread

I’ve often wondered just what it is that attracts people to religious faith and action? It’s not a particular tradition but rather seems to be the sense of being in a community/church that worships the mystery some call God and then tries to imitate that divine love in the world.

Many leave and almost as many in time return to the folds of faith in one’s own heart and expressed in religious practices in community. I don’t think such returns are all out of guilt. Guilt is not a strong enough motivator to make a faith both hold and connect you to your own deep goodness.

What tidal movement draws people to faith and its many expressions? These days such faith is taking shape outside of traditional forms as well as being renewed within the best of the old. It's gloriously messy and includes death alongside life.

Here is a bit of wisdom about that spiritual pull. Evelyn Waugh in Brideshead Revisited is speaking particularly about the Roman Catholic faith but to me his metaphor is about the way Godde twitchs the soul’s thread. (Brackets are mine to clarify the context a little, something one must always do when an intense young teen is speaking fast, right?)

In the mouth of a girl of 15 speaking to the novel's narrator, a man and family friend: “D’you know what papa said when he became a Catholic? Mummy told me once. He said to her: 'You have brought back my family to the faith of their ancestors.' Pompous, you know. It takes people different ways. Anyhow, the family haven’t been very constant, have they? There’s him [papa] gone and Sebastian [her brother] gone and Julia [her sister]gone. But God won’t let them go for long, you know. I wonder if you remember the story mummy read us the evening Sebastian first got drunk, I mean the bad evening. “Father Brown” [the character in the novel mummy was reading] said something like ‘I caught him’ (the thief) ‘with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.’”

This girl believes God won’t let people go away for long. Her religious faith draws her and provides a cushion and a structure as she tries to discern her own place and possible vocation in her context which is aristocratic pre- WWII England.


Is that a metaphor for divine grace, like the subtle pull of the moon on the tides, from so far and so tenuously connected, like a thread that with one twitch, a twitch not a yank, brings us back to join the ebb and flow of faith?

Love is like that, a twitch upon the heart’s threads.

Friday, February 10, 2012

2012.02.10 A Famous "Cliché"

“Old Marley was dead as a doornail. This must be distinctly understood or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.”

Writers take note. These are two sentences in the opening paragraphs of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.(The quote above is taken from the screen play for the movie version starring George C. Scott, fyi.)

The punch of the point, however,is more important than assignation and is written in a, heaven forbid, cliché. (It might not have been in Dickens’s day but he alludes to it as such.)

A cliché today would be enough, especially on the first page in the first sentence, to render one’s manuscript “dead as a doornail” indeed and buried in the slush pile.

A doornail is a stud set in a door for strength or as an ornament. Useless, hackneyed, overused, trite, lackluster AND lifeless? Maybe, but don’t you have doornail days? As a writer those are days when my every word is dry, zestless, blah, and every sentence deader than a doornail.

Thank you Charles Dickens for giving me the courage not to be so afraid that every darn word I put on the page MIGHT be a cliché or some other sin inviting death.

Write free as a bird, happy as a clam, cool as a cucumber!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

2012.02.05 Keeping Madeleine's Commandment

Commandments don’t end I’ve discovered. They are such powerful words of wisdom that you are compelled to stay aware of them in order to pay attention as their nuances unfold.

When Madeleine L’Engle told me not to become a little man after I got ordained priest I only half knew what she meant. As I grow, read, age, and wrinkle, I discover that the surface attentions like earrings at the altar or red shoes in church while celebrating Mass, even at Pentecost for the HS, are the easy parts.

I remember my feelings of shame when the parish where I was Priest Associate for several years in the ‘90s prayed every Sunday for “our priests, Father Erik and Lyn.” Road rage is about being edged out or held back, whether it is rational or not. I launched immediately into prayer rage.

When you start to mess with major symbols like language you run into more that resistance. You get laughed at as happened to me at a clergy day two years ago when the Chairwoman of the Episcopal House of Deputies dismissed my questioned concern about exclusive language as “hardly the point.”

Let’s get on with important ministry, saving the world, feeding the hungry, etc, etc. Inclusive language is a surface and trivial issue. I agree only that it is not a new issue, however it is a deeply unresolved issue. I admit I’m still beating that drum because it's not dead yet.Language after all is our most powerful symbol, no? And we use words as much as actions to speak of our religious faith.

What is more to the point than the deification of masculinity through pronouns? Don’t
misunderstand me I love men, even married a couple and have beloved sons, stepsons and grandsons, but that is not the point. The point is how we speak of God.

Forgive me if I get preachy and commandment-tempted myself: As long as we worship an exclusively male God, a deity dressed in patriarchal garb, we will be a Church afraid to love.

BTW Jesus was a great man. Christ resurrected however, is gender-free— and the more divine for it.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

2012.02.01 And God Said What?

A friend sent me a Geranium Farm post (12/22/11) by the inestimable Episcopal priest Barbara Crafton, author of Geranium Farm the almost daily e’mo,a communiqué replete with grounded spiritual wisdom.

Crafton is full of humor and usually good theology. But this time I disagreed.

She wrote about scrooge-like pettiness and ridiculed her own fretting about where to place her teapots in the kitchen, a worry that inspired a small marital bit of rancor.

Then she heard an inner judgment that came to her “with the accent of steely love I recognize as the voice of God, cutting through my fantasies of gracious living” while others have no home.

“And you’re worried about teapots?” the voice said.

I’m sure Crafton means that she was humbled, maybe ashamed or embarrassed. I wondered about steely love. I’m probably a theological softie but I don’t experience God speaking to me in ridiculing ways. If I did I might have trouble trusting and loving such a God. I have plenty of inner self-ridicule that puts me in my place. Would a gracious God pile on more?

I once had a wise Jesuit spiritual director who said, “If you hear God being negative towards you personally it’s probably not God.”

I’ve held onto that wisdom. The voice of God doesn’t make my soul cringe. I do, but I don’t think God would. I might feel humbled by God or awakened and challenged, but not scorned.

What I believe is that God loves and cares about silver teapots. Or let's say God cares about my anxious fretting about this and that trivia, as much as the larger issues like poverty.  

“That’s insane,” said a friend.

Perhaps so, but to me that is how God is different from us,how the divine heart, unlike the human heart, can contain all our trivia in equal measures to receive loving care.

I find that image of God so holy, so inhuman, I hardly dare take it in.

Frankly, it’s easier to believe in the divine judge than the divine lover. Easier but not so faithful.